California’s system of government, consisting of elected representatives and the direct democracy of the initiative, referendum and recall, serves the public interest only when leaders stand up for what is right.
The Lincoln-Roosevelt League volunteers and Governor Hiram Johnson, who spearheaded the grassroots drive to create the ballot initiative process in 1911, wouldn’t be surprised that modern-day politicians use their authority to write misleading titles and summaries of proposed initiatives to kill them before they quality for the ballot or to undermine their electoral changes if the initiative does go before the voters. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “Most voters never read more than the title and summary of the test of the initiative proposals. Therefore, it is of critical importance that titles and summaries be concise, accurate and impartial.
The passage of Proposition 47 in November 2014 is a story of the epic failure of elected officials to protect the4 safety of innocent citizens. Proposition 47 requires misdemeanor rather felony sentencing for the crimes of grand theft, receiving stolen property, forgery, fraud, writing a bad check and shoplifting if the value of the stolen property does not exceed $950 and the personal use of most illegal drugs.
Even though California Attorney General Kamala Harris oversees the laboratory that analyzes the DNA samples collected from those arrested for felonies, she failed to mention, when writing the title and summary of Proposition 47, that it would, if enacted, cause a drastic reduction in the number of DNA samples collected for analysis. DNA samples obtained from people who are arrested for felonies have been successfully used to solve major crimes such as murder and rape and put dangerous criminals behind bars. DNA samples have also been used to exonerate the wrongly accused. The voter-supported Proposition 69 of 2004 enacted this great tool for justice.
Sacramento County District Attorney Anne-Marie Schubert has noted that the California Department of Justice received 15,000 DNA samples each month from local law enforcement before the November 2014 election and now only receives about 5,000 samples a month. This fatally-flawed measure would have been defeated by the voters if Attorney General Harris had told the truth that it would curb the ability of law enforcement to collect DNA samples and help convict dangerous criminals. There is also rising concern that Proposition 47 allows people who steal a gun or predators who possess the date rape drug to avoid b being arrested.
With the enactment of Proposition 47, law-abiding Californians are now living with the consequences, so there is a strong correlation between drug and theft crimes and violent crimes. So far, 4,347 inmates have been released from state prison due to re-sentencing. The City of Sacramento reports a 25% increase in violent crime. Enrollment in court-ordered drug and mental health treatment programs in Los Angeles has dropped by over 50%, as there is now little incentive to get help. KCRA reports that in Placer County 14% of inmates end up back in custody and in Sacramento it’s 60%.
What has the California Legislature done about this problem? AB 84 (Gatto) and AB 390 (Cooper) would have allowed DNA collections from anyone convicted of crimes that were reduced to misdemeanors under Proposition 47. AB 46 (Lackey) would have let voters decide whether possessing the date rape drug with the intent to use it a felony. AB 150 (Melendez) would let voters decide whether stealing a gun should be a felony. At the end of May, Chairman Jimmy Gomez of Assembly Appropriations Committee announced that he was “holding” but in fact killing AB 46, AB 84 and AB 150 and not a single legislator had the courage to demand a roll call vote. AB 390 cleared the Assembly but was killed in the Senate Public Safety Committee by a vote of 3-4.
Two things need to happen to strengthen our democratic institutions and enhance public safety. First, we need more legislators who will support a bill like AB 319 (Niello) of 2009, which would have transferred the responsibility of writing the initiative title and summary from the partisan Attorney General’s office to the more objective Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO). Second, we need more legislators who will stand up and support law-abiding citizens and victims of crime.